By Michael Brooke
Everything old can become new again — take vinyl for example. But sometimes even marketers can be taken by surprise. The evolution of direct mail might seem to have left it a niche medium yet the reality of how mail is being implemented today is very different from the perception.
While digital marketing has grabbed the spotlight over the past decade, direct mail continues to garner a renewed cachet and there is no doubt its influence is growing. Evidence is all around us that direct mail is a tremendously adaptable channel that continues to drive results for those who know how to leverage its capabilities. Those marketers are doing this in ways that are sometimes ingeniously creative and truly engage customers and prospects from all demographics. It’s also delivering some pretty astounding results.
It’s no secret that many major fundraisers never left direct mail as a primary marketing channel. One non-profit that demonstrates how scientifically-backed direct mail can be a game-changing fundraising strategy is Toronto’s Scott Mission. This Christian based organization turned 80 years old in 2021 and as Holly Thompson, their director of marketing and communications explained, “Prior to 2008, the Mission didn’t do much active fundraising. We had a few newsletters each year. We had about 5,000 donors and it generated about two million in donations.”
Unfortunately, this was nowhere near their operating budget and they relied on a handful of key donors to make up the shortfall. “We knew that we had to do something — we couldn’t just rely on God for support.” So, they made the decision to invest heavily in donor acquisition strategy through tactics which included outside list rentals, which were heavily leveraged to actively solicit targeted members of the public via direct mail. It was a move which paid off with dreamlike results.
“Over the past 14 years, we have grown to more than 65,000 donors who provide us with more than $16 million in donations.” Thompson also points to the fact that data-driven tactics which include segmentation and analytics help identify high-value or high-potential donors, who are then also cultivated by direct mail methods to support even more. “We have had donors move from $500 per year to donating tens of thousands the following year.”
It’s the kind of story that is played out all across fundraising programs in Canada, but there are many more retail and other vertical marketers delving deeper into direct mail than was thought possible just a few years ago. It is a trend which can be said to parallel the role vinyl has taken as a musical medium which delivers powerful results for the listener. And that’s not the only way old becomes new again.
Typewriters cool again
In September 2021, The AARP published a story with the headline 11 Ways Typewriters Are Cool Again. The bi-line read “spurring creativity and attracting younger fans, their popularity is on the rise. In March of 2022, the Wall Street Journal published a story with the title Why Millennials Want Their Parents’ Vinyl Records. A telling part of the piece came from a quote from Jim Henderson, co-owner of Amoeba Music — Los Angeles largest record store. “Vinyl is an audio, visual and feel format. In my conversations with younger customers, vinyl has a similar emotional appeal as candy might have; especially picture discs and albums with colour vinyl.”
Dave Vander Ploeg, Executive vice president of franchise and business development at DRMG was pretty dramatic in his assessment as to where things are right now: “With people moving to places like Amazon to shop, the demand for cardboard boxes has skyrocketed. All of the paper mills are at 99 percent capacity and direct mail is booming.”
Vander Ploeg says that a few years ago, people used to dread going to their mailbox in January and February. “Now that bills are electronic, the mailbox has become the new mall. Direct mail engages a customer and is a non-intrusive way to reach a prospect.” As he explained, people go out of their way to avoid advertising — whether through things like streaming services or ad blockers. “But direct mail is an honest medium that puts the decision to react to a specific offer in the customers hands. “If you don’t like it, you can place it in the recycling bin and move on.”
When it comes to the issue of attention, most people who work in marketing will point to the fact that goldfish now have a longer attention span than humans (less than 9 seconds). Despite this feeling like solid science, it is indeed a myth and not based on the actual evidence. The reality is that goldfish actually don’t have short attention spans, according to Professor Felicity Huntingford of the University of Glasgow.
Professor Huntingford has spent almost half a century studying fish behaviour and has stated that goldfish are “a model system for studying the process of memory formation, exactly because they have a memory.” It turns out “that goldfish can perform all the kinds of learning that have been described for mammals and birds.” There are hundreds of studies on goldfish learning and nothing indicates they have a short attention span.
For those marketers who grew up in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the mailbox used to be cluttered with dozens of pieces of direct mail each week. As digital took over and jammed people’s inboxes, the amount of direct mail decreased. This empty space is now being reclaimed by savvy marketers who face much less competition for people’s attention.
DRMG’s Vander Ploeg says that a few decades ago, having a digital presence meant you had deep pockets and resources. It meant credibility. “Nowadays, for just a few dollars, anyone can get a website going. Things have flip-flopped. Having a direct mail campaign actually establishes your credibility as a marketer.”
Print’s not dead
After speaking with a number of direct mail experts, the one particular theme that kept coming up was “enhancement.” The fact is that direct mail is not going to replace digital marketing, but it really works well alongside it. When it comes to measuring the ROI, direct mail can be tracked by things like QR codes, call tracking and coupon redemption. If you’re wondering about the power of direct mail, take a look at this statistic: when direct mail is used in combination with a digital, results can be over 250 percent greater or more than when using digital alone. Now that I’ve got your attention, it’s time to explore the power of direct mail.
As David O’Connell, founder of BANG! Creative so eloquently put it, “Print’s not dead, it has shifted.” And what a shift it has made. O’Connell pointed to the fact that in the past, print was incredibly expensive and was rather limiting for most small businesses. “There was also the issue of waste,” says O’Connell. “But digital has allowed us to become strategic when it comes to the use of print.” The agency hones in on the collection of the data and leverages this to everyone’s advantage. O’Connell explained that in one particular direct mail piece, the company targeted a specific group of people who received beautifully printed customized brochure along with a keychain and pen. “We knew from the data that these were receptive people and that the marketing message would be received in a positive way.”
“At its core, direct mail is about three specific things’ ‘ explains Kristi Tomasin, director of the SmartMail Marketing program at Canada Post. “It’s about physicality — the power of the brand. It’s about utilizing data with surgical precision – the right channel and precise message. Finally, direct mail is about connectivity — it really works well with other media.”
Direct mail is truly something different in what can feel like a tsunami of digital messaging. Many people are just overwhelmed by the amount of promotional emails they get. They are bombarded constantly by messages and calls to “like”, “subscribe” or “follow.” It is the physical, tactile nature of a printed piece carefully constructed to reach a specific customer or prospect that can really differentiate your business from the competition.
Direct mail fits budgets
The unique thing about direct mail is that it can fit a wide variety of budgets. Should you wish, highly creative, customized pieces can be sent out to a selective few — like Instagram or TiK Tok influencers. If you’d prefer to reach a wide audience for low cost, you can share the costs with other advertisers.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, sends out millions of printed catalogues. They see direct mail as a way to engage customers and a way to draw consumers towards inspirational brand messages.
Adding to the “isn’t it ironic file”, you might be surprised to learn that Google is another digital giant that invests heavily in direct mail. In fact, if you Google “why does Google use direct mail?” you will encounter hundreds of articles explaining why the company invests millions in direct mail.
Tomasin points to the tactile experience a consumer will be given through direct mail as one of its key benefits. “It is immersive and it can be a unique part of the customer journey. When it comes to specific companies or organizations, people do in fact want them to know them.”
Over the past two years, a number of consulting companies have looked at the impact of COVID as it relates to the home. Olive Wright, managing director of consulting firm Accenture was quoted as saying that “home is now the new frontier — it’s become the workplace, the schoolroom, the place to try new hobbies, the place to socialize and a safe sanctuary — so companies must account for this reality.” As Todd Cober, president of Cober Solutions explains, over the past two years, Canadians have spent a great deal of time cooped up. “It’s changed what we value. The pandemic allowed us to open our eyes, to slow down a little bit and explore what really matters.”
Direct mail enters our home in a vastly different way than digital media does or in the way radio or TV does. When you think about how we engage with physical mail, you begin to examine what experts call “the mail ritual.” Think about the times you visit your mailbox. You’ll carefully look for important mail – things like bills but a printed piece that piques your curiosity will most likely get some attention as well. “If it makes it into the house, then it’s a big win” says Cober.
Diana Lucaci, co-founder of True-Impact has done a tremendous amount of research on how people respond to advertising. I wondered about millennials and their reception to direct mail. “From various consumer neuroscience studies, we’ve learned that millennials respond ‘better’ to direct mail that involves a physical interaction, such as opening an envelope, ripping open a tab, etc” says Diana. “The response is defined by the ratio between Motivation and Cognitive Load. We’ve learned that millennials find interactive direct mail pieces more motivating and easier to understand.”
True-Impact has also learned that millennials’ brains reacted well to the addition of the sense of scent. Slightly scented DM pieces scored well with this demographic, as well as with Generation X.
Direct mail psychology
A few years ago, Canada Post wanted to dive deeper into the psychology behind direct mail. They examined how people actually interacted with mail. So they hired a team of ethnographic researchers to observe people in an open, non-directed way. It was all about what type of behaviour was present when they retrieved the mail and why they were happening.
The researchers found that mail is so ingrained in people’s lives that consumers ritualize it. In the process, they imbue it with emotionally charged meaning, making them more susceptible to inspiration from brands.
At the beginning of the mail ritual, it was found that people engaged in what is called “a mail sort.” This generally takes between two to five minutes and tends to happen in the same part of the home each day. The researchers noted that a mail ritual can be accompanied by a range of associated activities, including listening to music, making dinner, talking with family members or watching TV. In terms of priority and importance, it comes as no surprise that addressed mail is opened and read immediately, promotional mail is filtered for interest, and items that require a more detailed read are set aside for later.
When compared to digital, the study found that consumers are far more likely to notice, open, read and enjoy mail than digital forms of advertising. They felt it was less intrusive, more memorable and the best way to make them feel valued. They also found that consumers keep mail and display it in the homes and share it with friends and family. By doing so, this creates multiple opportunities for a brand to be seen. They also found direct mail is persuasive in driving people to a store or to take action. The other critical piece about direct mail is that it doesn’t contain harmful viruses. Most people trust their mail a lot more than their email.
True SCAN (part of True Impact) has tracked with eye tracking glasses how people’s attention flows with direct mail. “Our studies show attention going to the recipient’s name first and foremost. In addition to ensuring the information is correct, seeing your name is very engaging for the brain. After all, your name is your favorite word” says Lucaci.
A well designed piece of direct mail will guide attention to the brand’s intended areas of interest: brand logo, promotion, call to action, etc. To avoid wasting marketing dollars, it is important to ensure people will quickly understand the offer and not feel overwhelmed or confused. What grabs people’s initial attention will determine what is then perceived as relevant, and ultimately read further.
“Ultimately, pieces that are persuasive, engaging, entertaining and interesting are then likely to be kept, displayed and shared with others. A bit of pre-planning and optimization will help guarantee the success of your direct mail piece. The main determining factor we’ve identified is keeping to one main CTA, followed by supportive CTAs,” says Lucaci.
Lucaci emphasizes if marketers are planning to track calls into a URL, emphasize the link and de-emphasize the phone number, address, etc. “Ultimately, it’s about how quickly the idea is understood and sometimes, the best way to know is with the help of an objective, 3rd party perspective.”
When it comes to analytics, direct mail can provide some truly exceptional insights. A pizza franchise based in western Canada worked with DRMG to determine where all their orders were coming from. The analytics indicated that 80 percent of their orders were coming from a 2½ kilometer radius but they were sending out flyers to a 5 kilometer radius. “This meant 50 percent of their advertising was going to waste,” explains Vander Ploeg of DRMG. “We shrank their radius and doubled up on the campaign with multiple offers. This included solo and shared mailings.”
The result was the franchises were able to direct the flow of orders and keep in constant contact with their customers. “Direct mail helps customers move from the anecdotal to the empirical,” says Vander Ploeg.
Over the last two years, the restrictions of the pandemic meant that marketers had to get creative. One particularly unique campaign was for Absolut Vodka. Each during the holiday season, Absolut creates a special edition that is eagerly snapped up by collectors and fans. Prior to COVID, Absolut Canada would do a multi-media campaign featuring in-store displays and point of sale elements. But the safety measures put in place in liquor stores for physical distancing meant that in-store displays were being significantly reduced.
Corby Spirit and Wine (the Canadian distributor of Absolut) felt that other marketing channels were somewhat clogged, so they decided to do a direct mail piece. They brought in a specialty direct mail company by the name of Marketing Kitchen. “The design was oversized with impactful and bright colours. It featured a protective coating with a super luxurious feel and was truly unique” says Audrey Jamieson, president of Marketing Kitchen. “It definitely got people’s attention.”
A QR code enabled people to find the closest location for purchasing a bottle. 250,000 pieces were sent out to selective neighbourhoods and residents across Canada. The net result was impressive. Sales for the limited-edition bottle were record setting: 70 percent higher than the previous year.
While there are numerous success stories from the for-profit world and direct mail, there are just as many stories from the not-for-profit and charity worlds. Alexis Martis, Director of Leadership Giving, BC Cancer Foundation says that direct mail is an excellent way to engage their donors with rich storytelling and to share the latest in groundbreaking cancer research and enhancements to patient care at BC Cancer. “It’s also a great channel for testing different messaging, creativity, and ask amounts to better understand what most resonates with certain audiences.”
The Cancer Foundation works with Canada Post has been able to target specific demographics in their acquisition activities.” Martis was also keen to dispel two myths surrounding direct mail — that it is either expensive or a waste of donors’ money. “It’s actually an excellent investment with a really strong return. While emails are less expensive, 70-80 percent of them are never even opened! On the other hand, it’s generally understood that up to 90 percent of direct mail gets opened.
The Foundation also includes QR codes and URLs that point to dedicated landing pages for each of their campaigns. “This allows us to better track that cross-channel response. And we’ve seen the online response to direct mail double over the last couple of years” says Martis.
Marketing Kitchen worked very closely with Plan Canada to develop a highly personalized piece of direct mail that featured a customized QR code that took donors to their own personal web portal. “It was a really engaging piece with an old school vibe that stood out as one of the most creative campaigns we did in 2021” says Jamieson of Marketing Kitchen.
The power of direct mail hasn’t been lost; in fact, as so many marketers tell us, it has expanded and adapted to be both a primary medium for many purposes — fundraising being one of the most prominent. What’s more, the tactics, methods, principals and techniques which were created and refined in the world of direct mail have migrated to, or been borrow by, the most fundamental major marketers in all channels. It’s the basis upon which Facebook was built — personalization, segmentation, content tied to interests, and calls to action which match consumer (or business) interests and needs.
Going back to one of the major direct mail users in Canada, let’s leave the last word for now to the Scott Mission’s Holly Thompson, who uses direct mail to raise funds that benefit those who take advantage of the Mission’s services. As the Mission builds their investment in direct mail programs for donor acquisition strategies, they are consistent in their approach but they continue to test and re-test their tactics, as all great direct mail marketers must.
“Our organization re-examined how it was raising money and we realized we had to change the way we operate,” says Thompson. “Direct mail has made all the difference in the world.”
Michael Brooke is a Toronto-based freelance writer and is also principal of Time for My Story, a memoir writing and publishing service.